By Maria Suelzu, International Advocacy Officer, Migration Team, Caritas Internationalis

On 15 February I attended an event organised by Vatican Radio. It was a reading of some excerpts from the books written by women migrants who had taken part in the literary competition “Lingua Madre” (Mother Tongue) in Italy.

I was moved by the stories of these migrant women and by the quality of their writing. My role was that of presenting the activities of the Caritas Confederation for women migrants. Below you will find the text of my speech.

Caritas and the female face of migration

First of all I would like to thank Vatican Radio, as well as the organisations and all the women here today who have taken part in the literary competition “Lingua Madre” (Mother Tongue), for the opportunity to present the lobbying and advocacy work of Caritas Internationalis in support of migrant women.

Caritas Internationalis is a confederation of 165 national organisations, present on all continents, with a secretary general at the Holy See and representative offices at the United Nations in Geneva and New York.

National and local Caritas help millions of needy people every year. Such people have always included migrants in general, and increasingly migrant women, who often migrate alone.

Local Caritas provide various kinds of service to migrant women, including welcome; legal, medical and psychological advice; job placement assistance; and sometimes even emergency accommodation. One of these organisations is the Diocesan Caritas of Rome, which manages a large reception centre.

An increasing number of women migrate alone to seek employment, especially in the care sector, which experiences staff shortages in the richest countries. These women leave behind their families, entailing serious repercussions especially for their children and families of origin, as well as for the social fabric as a whole, which is often built on women’s capacity to relate with other people. For this reason, Caritas organisations called for a study to be carried out on the condition of migrant women and the specific risks of female migration.

In response to this need, and in order to identify the most urgent and serious problems to be resolved, Caritas Internationalis organised an international conference in November 2010. Held in Saly, Senegal, involving experts from around the world, some with practical experience acquired in the field and others from academia with analytic experience in the area of migration, this conference was called “The Female Face of Migration”.

A post-conference booklet, also entitled “The Female Face of Migration”, which is available on the caritas.org website in French, English and Spanish, was published to illustrate the issues that arose and recommendations for dealing with them. Unfortunately, the booklet is not currently available in Italian.

Compared with male migrants, female migrants are subject to additional and specific vulnerabilities, such as employment discrimination, sexual exploitation, domestic slavery, violence and specific health risks. Particularly in some parts of the world, female migrants are often minors, and therefore even more vulnerable, and often unaware of the serious dangers they are exposed to until they are already in a situation they can no longer get out of.

Indeed, girls and women from the poorest parts of the world often fall prey to people traffickers who, by taking advantage of their legitimate aspiration for a better life and their lack of knowledge of life and society in the destination countries, persuade the migrants to trust them. As a result they often live in conditions of semi-slavery, are subjected to all kinds of violence and get into debt. Migrants and their families often pay large sums of money to emigrate, and then have problems in paying off the debt. Consequently, they often end up in a more difficult situation than the one that led them to emigrate. People trafficking is now a more lucrative illegal activity than drug trafficking.

In his Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees celebrated last January, the Holy Father reminded us that “we must not overlook the question of irregular migration, an issue all the more pressing when it takes the form of human trafficking and exploitation, particularly of women and children … An orderly migration policy which does not end up in a hermetic sealing of borders, … could at least limit for many migrants the danger of falling prey to such forms of human trafficking.” He then emphasised the need for effective measures to eradicate people trafficking.

In addition, migrants who manage to find a good job and decent living conditions often pay a high price in terms of separation from their families. Their children, defined as orphans of mobility, end up in highly vulnerable situations, have problems at school and are victims of discrimination.  Moreover, in many countries of origin, where social services are inadequate, women are the ones who take care of the extended family.

Due to the absence of women, the community of origin has difficulty in tackling various social problems and providing services to the elderly, who are left to their own devices and have to look after their grandchildren, precisely when they are starting to lose their health and strength. In some cases, the social fabric is actually destroyed.

However, migrant women have a great capacity for adaptation and are able to integrate in their new country, often managing to save and send remittances to help their children’s education and provide for the needs of the community of origin. They make enormous personal sacrifices to help their families in the country of origin, but are not always understood. Indeed, sometimes they are resented, due to their absence from everyday life.

In particular, women who work as carers may find themselves socially isolated and emotionally very lonely, while also having to take care of very old people who may have mental problems, such as Alzheimer’s disease.  They have to get by on their own.

Zeina, a Moroccan woman, told us: “I do this for my children. I want them to study and be able to get a good job. I don’t want them to be forced to live like me.” And Julia, from Sri Lanka, who works in the Middle East, told us: “They left me with nothing to eat for up to two or three days.”

Caritas Internationalis – together with other civil society organisations – has fought for domestic female workers’ rights and these efforts have resulted in the International Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers of the International Labour Organisation.

This international instrument has already been ratified by various countries, including recently by Italy, the first European country to do so. It will take time for this Convention to be ratified in the areas where least respect is shown to female care workers and situations of slavery are most tragic and frequent, as is the case in some Middle Eastern countries.

Meanwhile, the Caritas network is continuing its campaigns – in Lebanon and Jordan for example – to bring about a change in mentality and attitudes towards female workers from Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Nepal, who migrate to these countries and are subjected to abuse.

In our European countries it is often publicly denied that there is a demand for workers that cannot be met by local human resources. The actual situation is quite different. Indeed, it is estimated that without immigrants there would be an increasing labour shortage, due especially to the aging of the local populations.

When women migrate alone they carry with them economic responsibility for their families back home. Families to whom, paradoxically, they can no longer offer the emotional support that their presence guaranteed. These women often have to face alone the violence and abuse meted out by men they travel with, traffickers, policemen and employers.

Caritas Internationalis calls on governments: to analyse the impact of female migration on communities in countries of origin and of destination; to develop and implement policies and laws that tackle the specific problems of migrant women, by encouraging legal and safe migration and thereby reducing the risks of trafficking and its terrible long-term repercussions on women’s lives; Caritas also calls on governments to guarantee women’s rights as workers, and to facilitate family reunion, which is currently very difficult for migrants to obtain. Migrants should also be granted access to health services, including any psychological assistance they might need.

Caritas requests that, in all countries, women who have been abused by agencies or employers be given real access to the justice system. Today, too many employers perpetrate abuse with total impunity. Indeed, migrants who lodge a complaint often risk expulsion and, in some countries, are imprisoned as they are deemed to be illegal immigrants as soon as they leave the house of their employer, who sponsored their residence permit.

Finally, Caritas calls for assistance to be given to migrants returning to their countries of origin, to ensure that their return is voluntary and not an expulsion. Expulsion often obliges them to return to countries where not even their human rights are respected.

I would like to end by saying how happy I am to take part in this event and to listen to the stories written by immigrant women in my mother tongue. Thank you.